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Friday, August 11, 2017

I met a woman named Yvonne recently and asked her where she got her name. The answer brought this bizare, long-forgotten story to light again.

Yvonne is not a 'today' name so I asked, "Were you named after Yvonne De Carlo," an attractive mid-20th century  movie star with acting roles that ranged from "The Ten Commandments" to credits with John Wayne, Bob Hope and as Lily Munster in the popular old TV show, "The Munsters."

"No," she said. "I was named after Yvonne Dionne of the Dionne quintuplets." (Ah, now I know how old you are.)

And that's what I'm talking about here. (Remember, this was before 'Octomom' Nadya Suleman who gave birth to six boys and two girls with the help of in vitro fertilization in 2009 and others who have used this fertility process to make the birth of quints almost a sidebar today.)

Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Emilie and Marie Dionne

 Notice how happy these young quints look? That's because, they aren't. The Dionne quints were born in Ontario, Canada in 1934, near the peak of The Great Depression, and a world so thirsting for any good news that was available.

The quints were the first to have survived from infancy to adulthood and became instant celebrities. Their remarkable births (of that day) and the years to follow pushed them into unnatural circumstances that shaped their lives.  They were dubbed, "The most famous babies on earth," and became the next thing to "circus freaks" on the world stage.

Four months after their birth, the quints were made wards of the King (Quebec, remember) by virtue of the Dionne Quintuplets Guardian Act of 1934 enacted just for them, as you might guess. What followed allowed the government and those around the girls to exploit them for profit. It provided tourist revenues in the millions of dollars rivaling even Niagara Falls.

Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Emilie and Marie were put on exhibition and used as a tourist attraction for Quebec. Think I'm exaggerating?

"The province of Ontario swooped in and took them from their parents," reported the New York Times, "declaring that they had to be protected from exploitation. Then it exhibited the children three times a day in a human zoo called Quintland, to be raised as a sort of science experiment. Three million visitors came in the 1030s"

Quintland offers a most fascinating and complete story. This site is a must it if you are curious of what happened from there.

The Dionne sisters were constantly tested, studied and examined with records being taken of everything, notes Wikipedia. While living at the compound, they had a somewhat rigid lifestyle. They were not required to participate in chores and were privately tutored in the same build where they lived. 

Cared for primarily by nurses, they had limited exposure to the world outside the boundaries of the compound, except for the daily rounds of tourists, who, the sisters' say, were generally heard but not seen. They also had occasional contact with their parents and siblings. 

Every morning they dressed together in a big bathroom, had doses of orange juice and cod-liver oil, and then went to have their hair curled. They then said a prayer, a gong was sounded and they ate breakfast in the dining room. After 30-minutes, they had to clear the table. They then played in the sun room for 30-minutes, took a 15-minute break and at 9 o'clock had their morning inspection with Dr. Dafoe. 

Every month they had a different timetable of activities. They bathed every day before dinner and put on their pajamas. Dinner was served at precisely 6 pm. They then went into the quiet play room to say their evening prayers. 

Each girl had a color and a symbol to mark whatever was hers. Annette's color was red and her design, a maple leaf. Cecile had green and a turkey. Emilie had white and a tulip. Marie's was blue and a teddy bear.  Yvonne's was pink and a bluebird.

There is one story of exploitation that the girls were all dressed in Girl  Scout uniforms for a photo shoot and press release, then the uniforms were taken away and never part of their lives. They were on exhibition at fairs and gatherings where their presence could draw a crowd. They were the subject of songs and together, made several movies.

Not all of their recollections are dire but their circumstances controlled their early years and treatment more as commodities than young girls. They were moved from normal to not in a mother's heartbeat.

The girls were finally returned to their family at age nine and 9-year old normal was not really normal at all.

Today, only 83-year-old Annette and Cecile survive. They were recently interviewed for the first time publicly.  This is their story looking back with heavy hearts and seeking little.

"I want all the problems and wars to pass away," Annette said of their birth house, which the city plans to move to a fairgrounds nearby without any mention of its heritage. "It should become a symbol of peace and happiness, respect."

Cecile added, "Especially respect."  

Reader hint: The two links in this post open to a very interesting story of the miracle of birth turned into the tragedy of being a "freak."

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